Women who undergo rapid menopause brought on by the surgical removal of ovaries may have fewer hot flashes and night sweats when there are young children at home.
The process of menopause, when ovaries no longer produce eggs and menstruation stops, varies widely. Some women have almost no bothersome symptoms, while some women experience almost crippling ones. A small subset of women experience very severe effects longer than would be expected.
For a new study, researchers recruited 117 women, 69 who were menopausal or postmenopausal at the time of their surgery, with 29 of them having at least one child at home; and 48 women were premenopausal, with 28 of them having at least one child at home.
Researchers measured hot flashes and night sweats just before the surgery and then again at two months, six months, and 12 months post-surgery.
“These are intriguing findings,” says Tierney Lorenz, postdoctoral fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University Bloomington. “For women who were menopausal when our study began, those with young children at home actually showed more symptoms of hot flashes.
“But the women who underwent rapid menopause because of the surgical removal of their ovaries showed a dramatic reduction of symptoms.”
Previous studies on menopause have generated little consensus, Lorenz says, leaving women with a wide range of questionable treatments, such as supplements, hormonal treatments, and even hot yoga.
The new study, published in the journal Menopause, is one of the first involving social interaction and menopause symptoms to control for the age of the women and also for the type of relationship—only relationships with young children were considered.
The study got its start with an interest in the evolutionary role of social structures—grandmothering in this case, an institution that crosses cultures.
But is it really necessary for the survival of the species? Is there an immediate benefit to the women? Is it a coincidence that women often undergo the physiological change of menopause at an age when they might have young grandchildren on hand?
The findings cannot be generalized to all women, particularly since menopause affects women so differently, Lorenz says. But they point to a need to examine the hormone oxytocin more carefully because of its possible role in the results.
Oxytocin is associated with nurturing care and a wide range of effects across the body, including interactions involved in regulating body temperature. It also can affect mood and sleeping patterns, which can be disturbed during menopause.
Lorenz says the fact that the benefits only involve young children may also be significant.
“The fact the effects observed were limited to only women with children younger than 13 years suggests that parity was not sufficient to produce changes in flashes and points instead to the increased nurturance needs of young children,” the authors write. “Presence of young children at home may moderate development of hot flashes during the menopausal transition.”
The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center supported the research.
Bonnie A McGregor, researcher at University of Washington and Virginia J. Vitzthum, professor of anthropology and senior research scientist at The Kinsey Institute, are coauthors of the study.
*Image of “woman” via Shutterstock